October 29, 2013


“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”—Emerson.

[DISCLAIMER 1: The citation of a justly famous proverb by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), the celebrated Unitarian clergyman and Transcendentalist, does not mean that I endorse all that Emerson ever wrote or thought or preached. I simply like the proverb and find it useful, especially in these combative times.]

Emerson’s bon mot has been quoted by a century and a half of college English, religion, and philosophy teachers—yes, at Adventist colleges, too—who have been trying to crack the intellectual tundra that often accompanies the adolescent mind, hoping some new, green idea might emerge and even flower. Originally intended to cleverly skewer reactionary politicians, pedants, and preachers, his witticism has become a cultural warning of the dangers of the unsupple mind, the rigid and fearful consistency that insists on rolling the marble down the same groove, time after time. Had he been more daring, Emerson might have pointed to the work of his friend and sometime tenant Henry David Thoreau, the Transcendentalist who memorably chastised government, consumerism, and militarism. Thoreau also mentored at a distance of decades the developing ideas of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

[DISCLOSURE 1: I have read extensively in Thoreau’s works, spending some of the happiest hours of my youth walking the muddy path around his beloved Walden Pond, and admiring the countercultural man who called respectable Victorian America to “Simplify, simplify” (Walden, 1854). His volumes, frequently dusted off, are some of those I would rush to save should fire strike my library.]

[DISCLAIMER 2: Much as I admire the willingness of Thoreau to counter the acquisitiveness of his age (“A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone”), I cannot make him into a Christian, or allow the impression to linger in a hundred little minds that I endorse everything he wrote.]

“A tiny minority of Adventists is now wielding unwarranted influence on the church’s educational, pastoral, and publishing ministries.”

Yet Emerson and Thoreau must have winced when fellow Concord resident and author Nathaniel Hawthorne took up his pen to mock the pretentiousness of Transcendentalist thought in a redux version of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress that he cleverly titled “The Celestial Railroad.”

[DISCLOSURE 2: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1843 6,700-word short story, deemed “a most happy exposure of the inconsistencies of popular religion,” was so prized by Review and Herald founder and editor James White that it was almost continuously offered for sale in booklet or tract form on the back page of this magazine in his lifetime.]

The tortured shape of this editorial is a grim illustration of the fact that a tiny minority of Adventists is now wielding unwarranted influence on the church’s educational, pastoral, and publishing ministries by stoutly insisting that no reputable thought leader should read, own, or cite from a book by a non-Adventist author. They have invaded pastors’ offices, disrupted worship services, and left a trail of litter across a smattering of Web sites.

Their position is clearly wrong, for by their test none of the church’s founders, including Ellen White herself, should have any credibility. The libraries of Ellen and James White, Uriah Smith, J. N. Andrews, John Loughborough, and every major Adventist officer or thought leader since the mid-nineteenth century have been filled with volumes by non-Adventist authors, well read and frequently dusted off. It is precisely Adventism’s engagement with the ideas, opinions, beliefs, and philosophies of the age that make this movement’s faith statements so compelling and ultimately victorious. We are winning the contest of ideas—which, of course, requires that we know what others are thinking. Weary of the soulless ideologies and isms of the contemporary world, millions of men and women around the globe are turning to the clearly biblical and rational ideas on which our faith rests.

Now is no time to allow the well-intentioned but misguided fringes of this movement to distract us from the mission given us by Jesus, even when their anti-intellectualism is cloaked in memorized and repeated pieties. The faith of Jesus has always been—and should always be—a robust, resilient, and engaging faith that does not hesitate to understand the ideas around us, but tests them all by the clear and timeless Word of God.

[DISCLOSURE 3: This magazine, for 164 years the journal of literate Adventism, will not be intimidated by those too fearful to read.]